Vaccination against the sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer should be compulsory for European schoolgirls aged 11 and 12, a leading medical journal said today.

The Lancet published an editorial calling for the vaccinations despite controversy over their use in children.

There have been claims that the jabs against what is effectively a sexually transmitted infection could encourage under-age sex.

Last week the European Commission gave the go-ahead for the anti-cancer vaccine Gardasil to be used in EU member states. The licence allows the vaccine to be given to children aged nine to 15, and women aged 16 to 26.

Gardasil offers protection against human papillomavirus (HPV), a virus spread by sexual intercourse that can trigger cervical cancer.

The virus targets HPV types 16 and 18, which are responsible for 70 per cent of cervical cancers.

It also acts against types six and 11, the cause of about 90 per cent of genital warts.

The Lancet said Europe should take its lead from the US state of Michigan, which passed a bill on September 21 ruling that all 11 to 12-year-old sixth grade girls must be immunised.

"This is the first legislation of its kind in the USA, and a decision from which the EU members states should take heed," said the editorial.

The journal said there was growing support for the vaccination of both boys and girls, since men can carry HPV.

Studies had shown that female-only vaccination would be only 60-75 per cent as effective at reducing HPV prevalence in women as strategies targeting both sexes.

Previous gender-specific programmes had not always been successful, said the journal.

In 1995, Britain's rubella immunisation programme was modified after 25 years to include boys as well as girls after a rise in the number of pregnant women contracting the disease.